Carla Meyer

Dining review: Find a food experience at Sacramento's Lounge ON20

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

Last week, I argued that the much-admired Waterboy could be more interesting and creative. I also conceded that it is unlikely – unwise, even – for it to change, as business continues to boom.

With that reasoning, I should be making the case today that Lounge ON20 could stand to be less interesting and creative, as business in the restaurant portion of this stylized venture continues to lag.

With executive chef Pajo Bruich and chef de cuisine/ alter ego Mike Ward lighting up the kitchen, the reconfigured Lounge ON20 has emerged in recent months as a place with tremendous potential, serving modern food no one else in town comes close to matching.

The food here, at its best, touches all the bases. It is farm to table. It is avant garde. It is accessible. It is steak, chicken, pork, seafood and vegetables of all colors and shapes. It is complex. And it is simple. It's often beautiful, occasionally derivative and, in rare instances, off kilter.

Lounge ON20 is not for everyone. The appearance of the place can be polarizing. It is swanky. It's modern. It's "Miami Vice" to our "Starsky and Hutch." But it needs to find a way to be more inviting to more folks – foodies who don't give a hoot about being hip.

The best dish I've had in Sacramento this year is the housemade charcuterie and cheese plate. An astounding amount of craft and care goes into this delicious and multi-dimensional creation.

Even the macaroni and cheese ($6), a playful appetizer or snack at the bar, is the best I've had anywhere, including a joint in Greenwich Village that serves nothing but mac and cheese. It's battered in panko, deep-fried to perfection, these delicate, crunchy little cubes of warm, oozing goodness.

For now, though, Lounge ON20 is nothing close to being a sensation. It is the tree falling in the forest that nobody hears. It's not a major player. Some nights, the dining room is as empty as a pauper's pockets.

In fact, the restaurant has scaled back and simplified. Gone is the extravaganza I encountered months ago, the big, complex and often outstanding plates that showcased cutting-edge techniques.

That kind of cooking was not getting the support it needed to make financial sense. Principal owner Ali Mackani dialed it back, but he didn't snuff it out.

What's the problem, Sacramento? Is the cuisine too weird? Too precious? Or is it the room itself? Too self- serious? Too prissy and pretentious and bro-forward?

While I do have a few concerns about a place that bills itself as swanky, sexy and sophisticated, I'm not going to argue that Bruich and crew should change what they're doing in their kitchen. Those of you who want a food experience – not just a meal – will find it here.

We spend so much time in this city wondering why we are still a world away from a town like Portland, an urban enclave running on all cylinders, including its culinary scene. We lament, at times, that the menus in Sacramento play it too safe.

If you're the kind of foodie who complains about the lingering provincialism of the restaurant scene, here is your chance to discover something new that just might make you a believer.

Here we have this bizarre character named Pajo Bruich, who comes out of nowhere and immediately aspires to jump to the head of the line. He wasn't aiming to be the next Ella or Hawks. More like the local version of Manresa or Meadowood.

He's not there yet. But he's headed there. How can we tell? He's not afraid to create. Nor is he averse to risk. And most important, he sees failure as something positive. You learn from your failures. You embrace them, recalibrate and move on. Not enough of our best restaurants are willing to fall down to climb higher.

Bruich, 32, never went to culinary school. Then again, neither did Thomas Keller or Heston Blumenthal. Meadowood's 30-something genius Christopher Kostow? He has a degree in philosophy.

Bruich didn't take the classic apprenticeship route either. In fact, his résumé wouldn't get him hired at Olive Garden. But, man, this guy is smart and ambitious.

There are three ways I recommend eating here.

1. Order the five-course chef's tasting menu. It's $65 and is handled by Bruich and Ward. One or the other comes to your table for the presentation of each course, explaining the food and the techniques behind it. If you're really into food, here is your chance.

The charcuterie plate was my second course, and it is a slightly smaller version of the $24 masterpiece (with several cheeses) on the regular menu (a newer version of the menu divides the plates; charcuterie is $16, cheese $13). Ward makes his own charcuterie and it is outstanding. The work on this plate, brimming as it does with colors and flavors, illustrates how classic techniques meld with modern approaches.

The arctic char with heirloom beans comes next, a rustic pairing fit for winter. This rich fish, uncommon on local menus, was seared with the skin on in a very hot cast iron pan, then finished (almost) in a 450 -degree oven. Still slightly undercooked when it comes out, Bruich tops it with bubbling browned butter, which completes the cooking of the fish.

Some folks rip Bruich for being too modern, but this dish shows good old-fashioned technique.

The small accompaniment of eggplant purée was deceptively tasty. The chef burns it to bring out the sweetness and dim the bitterness. Then it is puréed and finished with herbs. What a revelation – something savory yet sweet enough to replace our marmalade for breakfast.

The grass-fed rib eye was next, noticeably different than the steak I had weeks earlier. Back then, the dish overwhelmed me – the sauce was syrupy sweet and almost intrusive. This time, Bruich refined it – and nailed it. The beef was cooked with precision (sous vide in a cryovac bag), resulting in a tender, beautiful steak with subtle flavor notes bolstered by the acidity of the sauce.

Given the economics of the restaurant, pastry chef extraordinaire Elaine Baker was, sadly, laid off a couple of months ago. The chocolate creameux I had weeks after her departure was good, but it didn't measure up to the rest of the meal.

2. Order off the menu. The most recent version has nothing over $20. The menu is smaller than it should be for a restaurant with such potential – but there are still nice choices. The chicken dish with celery root was another home run, the meat brined for 24 hours, cooked sous vide and finished with truffled celery root purée. We've never had chicken with more flavor.

The mushroom risotto also came off with aplomb, complete with a Parmesan mousse and a nice reduction sauce. Perfect texture. Wonderful wild mushrooms. Great flavors.

If you want a starter that will blow you away, get the mac and cheese ($6). Pro tip: you will not want to share this, so be sure your grabby friends get their own.

If we could quibble, sometimes Bruich's penchant for introducing sweet elements to a savory dish can come off as a tad repetitive, maybe even too obvious. Sometimes it works, but not always.

3. Order from the lounge menu.

I wasn't thrilled with the "triple cooked" French fries. Not as good as the double-cooked ones at Bistro Michel or the mammoth fries at Nationwide. But this is where you'll find carnitas tacos, an open-faced sandwich and oysters. The charcuterie plate can also be ordered this way.

This is the least expensive approach – and the least interesting way to explore the food here. But many of the drinks are excellent, and the food comes second.

The overall service at the restaurant ranges from good to pretty good, with the star being the young woman who greets patrons at the front door. She appears to be auditioning for the same gig at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.

In the kitchen, Bruich and Ward are a great partnership. They are going places and this is your chance to see them before they reach new heights and pack their bags for the big time. If you support them and get to know their food, you may have a hand in keeping them around a little longer.

Lounge ON20

1050 20th St. #100, Sacramento

(916) 443-6620

Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday (the lounge stays open later)

Full bar? Yes?

Takeout? Not recommended.

Vegetarian friendly? Limited.

Overall 3 stars (good)

This rating would be higher if the restaurant had not scaled back its menu only months after remodeling – and reinventing – the place. This could be a fine dining extravaganza, complete with grand ideas, show-stopping techniques and, most of all, stellar results. The food is still often superb, but there's not enough variety to really show off the talent in the kitchen.

Food 3 1/2 stars (very good)

Best charcuterie plate we've ever seen. Excellent fish, wonderful steak. Even the chicken is delicious. The chef's tasting menu ($65) is the way to experience the food at its best. Presentations are good to great, second only to the more artistic and sophisticated plating at Ambience restaurant.

Service 3 stars (good)

Excellent host and solid table service that varies in quality and consistency. Chef Pajo Bruich actually serves those who order the tasting menu. The interactions with the chef can be a real treat.

Atmosphere 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

Cool room, but to some it might seem so cool they won't feel welcome. The room has already been reconfigured to include more dining tables and less lounge. Still, the lounge can sometimes overlap with the restaurant experience. For an entertaining dinner, try sitting at the bar and watch the chefs do their thing.

Value 3 stars (good)

The sourcing of ingredients is good, and with the scaled-back menu the dishes are very affordable. Last time we checked, there were no menu items over $20. We'd actually welcome a broader range of prices to inspire those seeking an upper- echelon dining experience.